By Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)
We may not have set an Olympic record, but we notched a victory, nonetheless! Massachusetts lawmakers waited until the final hours of their legislative session to pass a criminal justice bill that includes reforms to mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws that Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) has supported for years!
On August 2, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill into law with Barbara Dougan, FAMM’s Massachusetts project director, by his side. The new law limits the state’s “school zone” law and makes some drug offenders now in prison eligible for the same reentry opportunities — parole, work release and earned good time — that are available to most other prisoners. The new law also reduces the length of some mandatory minimum sentences and increases the quantity of drugs needed to trigger certain low-level trafficking offenses. These reforms will improve sentences for about 1,500 drug offenders now in prison, plus an untold number of defendants in the years ahead, a victory indeed.
Sadly, these improvements came at a price because they were part of a bill that included provisions we opposed, an enhanced Massachusetts three-strikes law. It’s an unfortunate reality that sentencing reforms are often attached to bad bills. For example, the safety-valve for drug offenders that Congress passed in 1994 was part of an enormous crime bill that included life in prison for third nonviolent drug offenses. But I learned early on that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and sometimes we have to swallow bad legislation in order to get relief from mandatory sentencing laws. Right now it feels great to have made some progress toward fairer sentences for thousands in Massachusetts!
In Massachusetts we found allies who care about justice. But sometimes we confront adversaries who don’t seem to care if the punishment fits the crime. And for all the years I’ve been working on this issue, it still makes my blood boil. On July 19th, I appeared on the John Stossel Show on Fox Business News with Lis Wiehl, a former assistant U.S. Attorney who just adores mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Regardless of the outrageous cases I described, even that of a 24-year-old LSD offender serving life in prison without parole, she believed the sentence was justified. It’s scary to meet people who are so willing to throw away someone’s life and even scarier when they hold all the sentencing cards. If you missed this showdown between me and the AUSA, you can catch it on Hulu.com later this month.
The last days of July were spent packing up FAMM’s office as we got ready to move to our new headquarters. After 16 years at 1612 K Street, there was a lot of sorting to be done. I felt like an archaeologist unearthing shards of FAMM’s history — old photographs, letters from families, prisoners’ case summaries, bills we worked on, testimony we presented, newspaper articles about sentencing, VHS tapes of my appearances on the Donahue Show, Sally Jesse Rafael, Maury Povich (Whatever happened to Maury Povich?), and so much more. It was a fun trip down memory lane and one that reacquainted me with the many caring and dedicated people who have driven sentencing reform forward over the past 21 years. Many had loved ones in prison, or were in prison themselves, or simply recognized that something is terribly wrong with a country that incarcerates so many for so long.
Many of the old files reminded me of events FAMM has hosted over two decades — conferences in Washington D.C., press briefings, rallies on capitol steps across the country, briefings in Congress and state houses, prison art auctions, anniversary dinners, a gala for those who received commutations from President Clinton, and more. These events often combined grassroots and grasstops organizing — a FAMM hallmark and a mark of all that we’ve accomplished so far.
Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the roses like this. But this is no time to relax. Our new office has lots of orange walls — the color of fire — and we’re ready to burn up some bad laws! Stay tuned to all the sentencing news as it happens by joining FAMM’s Facebook, Twitter, SentenceSpeak blog, and website. The Games have begun!
Julie Stewart, President, Families Against Mandatory Minimums. FAMM is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization fighting for fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety.